Singapore’s 130-year-old Raffles is about as iconic as a hotel can get. Ahead of its closing later this year for the final stage of an extensive restoration project, a longtime fan looks at its inimitable history and enduring legacy.
I think I was aware of Raffles long before I fully understood what it really represented. Growing up in Singapore in the 1970s, the hotel was such a natural, even normal, part of my life. For Singaporeans of a certain generation and financial means, it was the default location for social and professional events. We celebrated birthdays with steak and fancy table service at the Grill Room, held meetings in the Palm Court, and danced at anniversary parties in the ballroom. Out-of-towners were, invariably, invited to the Long Bar for a Singapore Sling before hightailing it to nearby Bugis for dinner and a drag show.
Generations of politicians, royalty, blockbuster novelists, and movie stars—they all came to stay. At a time when no one really talked about such sophisticated things, “Raffles” was a gold-plated brand name.
Looking back on it now, the hotel had probably seen better days. We just never really noticed. When I look through sepia-toned family photos from that period, I marvel at how dated the rooms and public spaces look, though at the time, I thought it was positively the last word in glamour and chic.
When an episode of one of my favorite American TV shows, Hawaii Five-O, was filmed in Singapore in 1978, I was thrilled to read in the papers that Jack Lord, the tall, dashing actor who played police chief Steve McGarrett, was staying at Raffles. By the time my mother relented to take me to the hotel for lunch, on the off chance that he would be sitting at the next table, the shoot was over and he’d gone home.
Round about the same time, Peter Bogdanovich filmed one of the pivotal scenes of Saint Jack—his notorious exposé of Singapore’s seamy underbelly, based on the book of the same name by Paul Theroux—in room 10. For his efforts, and probably to the relief of the hotel’s management, the film, with its central themes of crime, racketeering, prostitution, and nudity, was banned in the city-state until 2006.
One year, when I was back in Singapore for Chinese New Year during my university holidays, my First Uncle summoned me to the hotel. “I’ve checked in here for a week,” he told me when he met me in the lobby. “I’m escaping the rest of the family and all those awful house visits. Don’t tell anyone. Come, let’s have lunch at the Tiffin Room.” I never did tattle about his Chinese New Year escapes, but now that he’s gone, I don’t think he would mind much.
One by one, the memories unfurl—silent, black-and-white impressions of the past that form the palimpsest of my life. While my contemporaries have applauded the new wave of Singaporean hotels with their hi-tech, fancy fangled mod cons and sleek European furniture, I’ve always loved Raffles’ fin-de-siècle charm, especially the stately old suites, each furnished with Asian textiles, creaky floorboards, and brass-fitted armoires.
Leslie Danker joined the hotel in 1972 as a maintenance supervisor and is now its resident historian and longest-serving staff member. He tells me that Jack Lord had been “a bit proud.” I feel a little deflated at this historical assessment. Go on, I urge. “Well, I asked him for his autograph and gave him my pen, but he insisted that his driver go to the car to get his special autograph pen.”
Even after all these years, Danker looks decidedly unimpressed by such pernickety Hollywood behavior. He is a little more enthusiastic when he recounts how Bogdanovich and his leading men Ben Gazzara and Denholm Elliott disappeared into their room to shoot their scene. “No one else was allowed in. No one knew what they were doing. Everyone thought they were shooting a documentary, you know. They submitted a fake script to the authorities.”
This past February, Raffles Hotel Singapore—to give the property its official name—began an ambitious three-phase restoration project. Scaffolding has gone up around the white columned stretch of its retail arcade and a few wings have been shuttered. By the end of the year, the hotel will have closed completely, giving itself over to architectural firm Aedas Singapore and interior designer Alexandra Champalimaud, the woman behind the restoration of New York’s The Plaza and Waldorf Astoria, Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, and The Dorchester in London. The 103-suite hotel is slated to reopen in the second quarter of 2018 with fresh upholstery, decor, and wired technology.
The last time Raffles closed for this length of time was literally a generation ago, when, between 1989 and 1991, a century’s worth of unsympathetic intrusions was peeled off and stripped down to the restoration benchmark year of 1915. The entrance, which had been moved by the Japanese during the war to the eastern portico, was restored to its original Beach Road frontage, and the ballroom that had also been on Beach Road for as long as anyone could remember was demolished. The swimming pool in the Palm Court was, once again, covered up with lawn, and the lobby sparkled once more like the bright airy birdcage that had so enchanted Joseph Conrad a century earlier.
“When we did the 1991 restoration,” recalls Jennie Chua, the general manager at the time, “we were conscious to ensure that this would be a place that Singaporeans would want to come to and say, ‘This is our hotel.’ We wanted it to be a place where Singaporeans would come to celebrate milestones in their lives—weddings, birthdays, anniversaries. Otherwise, it would have been a very artificial entity that appealed only to transient guests.”
That the restoration achieved its goals is beyond doubt. Over the past quarter-century, Raffles has been as much of a local landmark as it was when I was growing up. But things wear out. With outmoded tech amenities, dated upholstery, and no ballroom, Raffles was ready for a major refit.
If there are any concerns about just what Champalimaud and her team will unveil, no one’s letting on. Danker isn’t worried. “Raffles was designated a National Monument in 1987, so they can’t really change anything structurally,” he says.
No, they can’t, I think to myself. And yet, would my memories survive being excavated and refurbished and dressed up in new colors?
One afternoon in early April, I checked in to Raffles for the night. It was meant to be a kind of long goodbye. They put me in suite 102 on the other side of the Palm Court where First Uncle once staked his annual hideaway. It turns out this was W. Somerset Maugham’s room whenever he was in Singapore. A bijou sitting room furnished with voluminous sofas and handwoven rugs led into a high-ceilinged bedroom and a vast bathroom. Framed original handwritten notes of thanks from Maugham to the hotel hung next to a handsome writing desk.
It was difficult not to sense the hovering past. The wing I was in—a long, white-marbled corridor with high ceilings framed by towering traveler’s palms and frangipani blossoms—was built in 1894 and, judging by the black-and-white photos that dot the property, it hadn’t changed much in the intervening 123 years.
I wandered the hotel. I touched the walls of the original annex that the Sarkies brothers, the hotel’s first proprietors, had added in 1890 to the 10-room guesthouse they’d leased three years earlier from the wealthy Arab merchant Syed Mohamed Alsagoff. Danker told me that during the first restoration, they’d dug beneath the lobby and discovered the foundations of the guesthouse. Elsewhere on the property, they unearthed the complete skeleton of a horse.
As a tropical night, heavy with humidity, settled over the French-tiled roofs and the hotel’s lights came on like candles on a birthday cake, we made our way across the Palm Court to dinner in the Raffles Grill—the very path Maugham would have taken, I imagined. Our crunching steps on the gravel echoed in the courtyard.
En route, I bumped into Roslee Sukar, the hotel’s assistant chief concierge. “I’m a little sad,” he said. He was 25 when he started at Raffles in 1992 at the front desk. He operated the elevator when Michael Jackson came to stay. “I’m so attached to this hotel.” On cue, the grandfather clock in the lobby chimed. Incredibly, it dates back to the days of the Sarkies brothers.
That night, as I settled into bed in the Somerset Maugham suite (how do I write these words without being swept away into the past?), I thought of all the guests who had stayed here over the past 130 years. All those whispering lives, each now a part of the Raffles legend. I don’t remember falling asleep. But I guess I must have, because eventually, morning came.
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2017 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Ode to a Classic”).